About this Recording
8.660248-49 - BOITO, A.: Mefistofele (Furlanetto, Filianoti, Theodossiou, Palermo Teatro Massimo, Ranzani)

Arrigo Boito (1842–1918)

Opera in a Prologue, Four Acts and an Epilogue
Libretto by the composer after Goethe’s Faust

Mefistofele (Mephistopheles) - Ferruccio Furlanetto
Faust, a scholar - Giuseppe Filianoti
Margherita / Elena (Helen of Troy) - Dimitra Theodossiou
Marta, Margherita’s neighbour - Sonia Zaramella
Wagner, Faust’s pupil / Nereo, a Greek elder - Mimmo Ghegghi
Pantalis, Elena’s companion - Monica Minarelli


The name of Arrigo Boito is inextricably associated with that of Giuseppe Verdi, as the librettist of the latter’s two great Shakespearian operas, Otello and Falstaff, a collaboration that came only late in Verdi’s career, after years in which he had only reluctantly been brought to such a point. Boito’s own operas consist of Mefistofele, first staged at La Scala in Milan in 1868 and later revised, and Nerone, on which he had worked for some 38 years and which remained unfinished at his death. Gifted as a writer and as a musician, he allowed his literary interests to distract him from his possible work as a composer.

Boito was born in Padua in 1842, the son of a miniature painter and a Polish countess. He and his elder brother, seven years his senior, were brought up by their mother in Padua, Venice and Milan, after she had been deserted by her husband, and after his mother’s death in 1859 Arrigo lived with his brother, Camillo, a successful architect and teacher at the Milan Academy of Art. Arrigo Boito spent the years from 1853 to 1861 as a student at the Milan Conservatory, notably as a pupil of the composer and conductor Alberto Mazzucato. He became closely associated with a fellow-student, Franco Faccio, collaborating with the latter in cantatas reflecting the ideals of the Italian Risorgimento. A scholarship enabled them to travel to Paris, where they met Rossini and Verdi, the latter commissioning from Boito a text for his Inno delle nazioni, performed at the London World Exhibition in 1862. A visit to Poland, his mother’s home country, found Boito working on a libretto, Amleto, based on Shakespeare’s play, for Faccio. The completed opera was staged in Genoa in 1865, its reception marred by the reaction of staider critics to a work by two members of the romantic reformist scapigliatura. Amleto, Faccio’s second opera, was also his last, and he made his subsequent career as a conductor of some distinction. His first opera, I profughi fiamminghi (The Flemish Refugees), staged two years earlier at La Scala in Milan, had been the occasion for Boito’s poem All’arte italiana - Ode saffica col bicchiere alla mano (To Italian Art - Sapphic Ode with Glass in Hand), which proved so offensive to Verdi, particularly in the lines in which Faccio is hailed for “purifying the altar of Italian opera now besmirched like the walls of a brothel” (Forse già nacque chi sovra l’altare / Rizzerà l’arte, verecondo e puro, / Su quell’altar bruttato come un muro / Di lupanare). It was only years later that Giulio Ricordi, a strong supporter of Boito, was able to bring him together with Verdi, at first proposing that Boito should offer his libretto of Nerone to Verdi, and then, after a trial revision of Piave’s Simon Boccanegra, collaborate in Verdi’s two great and final Shakespearean operas.

In Italy Boito was one of the first, like Wagner, to provide both libretto and music for his own opera. Various difficulties arose during the years during which Boito worked on Mefistofele, not least the successful staging of Gounod’s Faust in Milan in 1862. Boito at first planned a related pair of works, Margherita and Elena but finally produced an opera consisting of a prologue, five acts and an epilogue. This was first staged at La Scala in 1868, with the rôle of Faust given to a baritone. At rehearsal the conductor Mazzucato suggested various cuts, which were rejected by Boito, who was left to conduct the work himself in a performance that lasted for six hours and ended in an uproar. It was subsequently given over two nights, each part preceded by the prologue and followed by Constantino Dall’Argine’s ballet Brahma, before it was withdrawn. In 1871, after a successful performance of the prologue in Trieste, Boito was encouraged to revise the opera, reducing the number of acts to four and giving the rôle of Faust again to a tenor. This led to a successful staging in 1875 in Bologna. After further revisions Mefistofele was finally mounted in Venice in 1876 in its very successful third version.

As a composer Boito reached the height of his career with Mefistofele; as a librettist of considerable originality he marked the summit of his achievement with his Shakespearean collaborations with Verdi. His life brought active participation in politics, including service under Garibaldi in 1860, and manifest literary preoccupations, both a distraction from composition. At the time of his death in 1918 he was still working on his opera Nerone, a work that he had started so many years before and was to leave unfinished.



CD 1

Prologue in Heaven

[1] The Prologue starts with an orchestral Prelude, interspersed with off-stage trumpet calls.

[2] An invisible mystical chorus of angels is heard, through the clouds and mist, hailing angels, and saints, golden flying cherubim. Through the half-light a figure gradually emerges.

[3] With an instrumental scherzo Mephistopheles is seen, addressing the angels, excusing his appearance, if it is not quite that of other cherubim. In a waltzing trio section he declares the folly of mankind, like a jumping cricket poking his nose among the stars and vainly chirping in the grass; a mere atom of dust, man is deluded by what he calls Reason. He has hardly the heart to tempt such a creature to evil.

[4] In a dramatic interlude the mystic choir of angels asks if he knows Faust. Mephistopheles certainly is aware of Faust’s insatiable search for knowledge and proposes a wager that he can lure him into his power. Heavenly spirits sing Sanctus, while Mephistopheles sardonically remarks on how pleasant it is to hear the Eternal talking so humanely with the Devil.

[5] A chorus of cherubim sings a vocal scherzo, flying in joy to Heaven, but dreaded by Mephistopheles.

[6] In a final psalm a chorus of penitents sings a Salve Regina and Ave Maria, unseen and joined in song by the cherubim.


Act I

Scene 1: Easter Sunday

[7] The scene opens by the city gates and ramparts of Frankfurt. Bells ring out for Easter. Students, huntsmen and townsfolk celebrate the festival, dancing and singing. A herald sounds a trumpet, a quack doctor sells his wares, men gather round a beer-seller. A grey friar, hooded, passes through the crowd, shunned by some, revered by others. The Elector, surrounded by his knights and courtiers, passes by.

[8] Faust and Wagner observe the scene, with spring now come and the cold of winter dispelled. Wagner, walking with his master, has, as far as he is concerned, reservations about what he sees. Peasants dance in celebration of the festival.

[9] Dusk draws on, and Faust suggests that they sit and admire the scene. For Wagner evening is a time for ghosts. The grey friar is seen again and turns towards Faust, approaching and seeming to Faust to leave a track of fire, as he circles round. They go out, followed by the friar, while the distant sound of the celebration is heard.

Scene 2: The Pact

[10] The scene is Faust’s study. Distant voices are heard, as Faust comes in, followed by the friar, who hides in the study alcove. Faust sees good in his love for mankind, intending meditation on sacred texts. He takes up a book, placing it on a lectern, but is interrupted by a loud cry, as the friar comes out of the alcove, greeted by Faust. The friar throws off his disguise, revealing himself as Mephistopheles, dressed as a knight and carrying a black cloak. Faust seeks to know the identity of his visitor, who declares himself a living part of that force that perpetually thinks evil and does good.

[11] Mephistopheles declares himself the spirit that denies everything, his aim universal ruin. Faust sees him as the son of Chaos, and Mephistopheles proposes a bargain: he will serve Faust in every way, until their positions are reversed below.

[12] Faust consents, in return for one hour in which he may satisfy his desire by seizing the fleeting moment. Now Mephistopheles promises to obey. He will lead Faust on his new course that very night.

Act II

Scene 1: The Garden

[13] Faust, now young again and under the name of Enrico, Margherita, Mephistopheles and Martha walk in couples in a country garden. Margherita asks Faust to tell her why he loves her, while Mephistopheles makes overtures to Martha.

[14] Margherita asks Faust if he believes in religion. Faust’s reply stresses his love for her. He gives her a phial, a sleeping draught for her mother, so that they may be together in secret. The two couples, Martha and Mephistopheles in a whisper, express their supposed feelings, and all is of love, as the scene ends.

CD 2

Scene 2: Walpurgis Night

[1] The scene is a wild and lonely place in the valley of the Schirk, by the hill of the witches. The moon is rising. On one side is a cavern, and on the other the peak of Rosstrappe is seen. The wind blows, as Mephistopheles draws Faust on, climbing ever higher up old Satan’s mountain. Flames appear and one of them seems to lead them on, guiding them ever higher. They reach a peak and hear the sound of witches approaching from below. They draw near and Mephistopheles calls on them to bow down before their king.

[2] Mephistopheles calls impatiently for his sceptre and robe, and, donning the latter, proclaims his ambition to dominate the world. The witches circle round a cauldron and offer Mephistopheles what he wants.

[3] In the ‘Ballad of the World’ Mephistopheles, holding a glass orb in his hand, sings of his power over the world, in all its wickedness, laughing at the human predicament. He dashes the glass orb to the ground, and the witches celebrate the shattering of the world.

[4] Faust seems to see a girl, pale and in chains, his Margherita. Mephistopheles tells him it is only a dream, but Faust still sees her tears and the mark on her neck.

[5] The witches continue their celebration in a round dance and fugue.


The Death of Margherita

[6] The scene is a prison. Margherita is lying on a heap of straw, distracted and singing. It is night and there is a lighted lamp against the wall. At the back is a grating. She sings of the drowning of her baby, which they say was her doing. Her soul seems to fly, as she calls for pity. Her mother had died, and she was accused of killing her. Faust, outside, asks Mephistopheles to save her, and the latter, with some reluctance, gives him the key.

[7] Faust enters the prison, and Margherita calls on him to help her, remembering, in her delusion, their first meetings. She tells him that she has murdered her mother and drowned her baby, and he must dig graves for them and for her. He urges her to fly with him.

[8] They embrace, imagining the distant haven to which they will escape together. Mephistopheles appears, announcing the dawn and her coming execution. Margherita recognises Satan and prays to be saved from him. Mephistopheles moves to look at the grating, while Margherita lies fainting in the arms of Faust.

[9] Margherita laments her coming death and prepares to meet her fate, praying to Heaven and the angels, and rejecting Faust, who leaves with Mephistopheles, while the executioner approaches.


Act IV

The Night of the Classical Sabbath

[10] The scene is set in the vale of Tempe. There are limpid streams and thickets of laurel and oleander, lit by the light of the moon. Helen and Pantalis call on the sirens and nymphs to sing to them. Faust calls out to Helen. Mephistopheles declares this the night of the classical Sabbath. Faust, entranced, goes out, while Mephistopheles too seems under the spell of the place, so unlike his familiar Harz mountains, with their witches.

[11] Mephistopheles leaves, perplexed, as Greek dancers enter.

[12] The dancers praise Helen. She, however, recalls the horrors of the fall of Troy.

[13] Faust enters, dressed as a knight of the fifteenth century. He kneels to Helen, protesting his love, observed by Nereus, fauns and sirens, and by Mephistopheles, in some wonder at the sight. They gradually vanish through the bowers.


The Death of Faust

[14] The scene is again Faust’s study, now marked by the passing of time. There are voices in the air, as Faust, old again, meditates, sitting in his chair. Behind him stands Mephistopheles. It is night and the book stands, as before, on the lectern. Mephistopheles urges Faust on his journey, as death draws near. Faust has experienced real and ideal love, but the real was sorrow and the ideal a mere dream.

[15] Faust wishes only for the good of humanity, the happiness of mankind, and Heaven, as he journeys towards life’s end.

[16] Mephistopheles seeks to exert his power, but Faust seems to hear the celestial choir. The tempter does his utmost, but Faust falls, leaning on the sacred volume before him, as the heavenly vision appears to him. Mephistopheles finally sinks down, under the flowers scattered by the celestial beings, as Heaven finally prevails.

Keith Anderson

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